Wes Streeting – 2022 Speech on Elective Treatment

The speech made by Wes Streeting, the Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, in the House of Commons on 8 February 2022.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement, but it falls seriously short of the scale of the challenge facing the NHS and the misery that is affecting millions of people stuck on record high NHS waiting lists. We have been waiting some time for his plan to tackle NHS waiting times. We were told that it would arrive before Christmas; we were told that it would arrive yesterday; and it is not clear from his statement today that the delay was worth the wait. There is no plan to tackle the workforce crisis, no plan to deal with delayed discharges, and no hope of eliminating waits of more than a year before the general election in 2024. I wonder whether the Conservatives will be putting that on their election leaflets. The only big new idea seems to be a website that tells people that they are waiting for a long time, as if they did not already know.

Perhaps the Secretary of State can tell us whether the plan itself contains two other measures that have been floated in the press: the cancellation of patients’ follow-up appointments, whether they need them or not, and an offer enabling people to seize the opportunity to travel hundreds of miles around the country, if they can find a hospital in England that does not already have a waiting list crisis of its own. What we did hear was a series of reannouncements, including some perfectly sensible proposals for community diagnostic and surgical hubs. We welcome those, but the Secretary of State cannot pretend that they meet the scale of the challenge.

The Secretary of State reaffirmed the Prime Minister’s commitments on cancer, announced only yesterday. He announced a new target that no one should wait more than two months for cancer diagnosis, but there is already a target for the vast majority of cancer patients to be treated within two months of referral. Can he tell us which target he is aiming to meet? Is it the target that has not been hit since 2015, or the target announced yesterday, which seems to lower standards for patients because the Government consistently fail to meet them? The Prime Minister has also announced that three out of four patients should receive a cancer diagnosis within 28 days, but that is an existing target which was introduced in April and has never been met, and nothing that the Secretary of State has announced today gives me any confidence that it will be met in the future. Given that half a million patients with suspected cancer are not being seen in time, it seems that the Secretary of State declared a war on cancer after more than a decade of disarming the NHS, and is now sending the NHS into battle empty-handed.

Indeed, it is hard to believe that this is the announcement that the Secretary of State wanted to make. One Government official briefed Robert Peston that the plan was being blocked by the Chancellor, who is, “reluctant to rescue the Prime Minister”. Putting to one side the appalling spectacle of the Tory leadership crisis impacting on life and death decision making in Government, it seems from the statement that the Chancellor has won the day. What other explanation can there be for a plan to recover the NHS and bring down waiting lists that does not contain a workforce plan? The single biggest challenge facing the NHS is the workforce challenge. There are 93,000 staffing vacancies in the NHS today. The NHS is understaffed, overworked and, if the Secretary of State is not careful, he will lose more people than he is able to recruit. This is not a new development, and it should not be news to him.

In April, the NHS called for a national workforce plan. Polling from the Health Foundation found that the public want more staff with fewer workload pressures. The Secretary of State himself told the Health and Social Care Committee in November that his plan would include a strategy for the workforce crisis. We know the NHS wants a workforce plan and the public want a workforce plan. He promised a workforce plan, so where is it? There is not even a budget for Health Education England let alone a serious plan to recruit and retain the workforce that we need. Instead, he is proposing new NHS reservists. Who are they? Where are they coming from? How many does he imagine there will be? How does he imagine that they will make a dent in the 93,000 vacancies? It seems more “Dad’s Army” than SAS.

Then there is the issue of wider NHS and social care pressures that impact directly on waiting lists and waiting times: the pressures on GP practices that see people ringing the surgery at the crack of dawn in the hope of getting through before the appointments have gone; the pressures on social care that lead to delayed discharges from hospital, as we saw in more than 400,000 cases in November alone; and the missed opportunities and the wasted money that comes from a failure to invest in community services that lead to people turning up at A&E at greater cost to patient health and at greater cost to the taxpayer.

This plan falls well short of the challenge facing our country. Six million people are waiting for care. Cancer care is in crisis, with half a million patients with suspected cancer not seen in time. Heart and stroke victims are waiting more than two hours for an ambulance when every minute matters. It is clear from what the Secretary of State said today, from what his colleague, the Minister for Health, the hon. Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), said yesterday, and no doubt what will be heard repeated in the Tory scripts in the days and weeks to come, that the Conservatives are hoping to blame the state of NHS waiting lists on the pandemic—the “covid waiting lists”, they called them. But this is not a covid backlog; it is a Tory backlog. After a decade of Tory mismanagement, the NHS had: record waiting lists of 4.5 million before the pandemic; staff shortages of 100,000 before the pandemic; 17,000 fewer beds before the pandemic; and 112,000 vacancies in social care before the pandemic.

In conclusion, it is not just that the Government did not fix the roof while the sun was shining, they dismantled the roof and removed the floorboards. With the ceiling of their ambition that the Secretary of State outlined today being to go back to where we were before the pandemic, it is now clear that the longer that we give the Conservatives in office, the longer patients will wait.